The Shattered Medicine Chest Project


While in California, one of my clients found and purchased an antique Chinese apothecary cabinet. It was something she had always wanted, because it is related to work she does.

The cabinet she bought would have been used by a single practitioner, and not in a Chinese herb store, where there would instead have been be a full wall of drawers containing herbs. 

There, herbalists would measure out herbal prescriptions for their patients, as in the Lin Sister Pharmacy in New York City’s Chinatown.

So imagine my client’s horror when the long-awaited cabinet arrived and, upon opening it, she found it in pieces — it looked almost as though a grenade had gone off inside the box!

The shipper had taped a few sheets of bubble wrap around the cabinet, and then had duct-taped cardboard around the whole thing. Oh—and had omitted even writing “Fragile” anywhere on the outside.

As you can see, most of the glue joints had failed, such that all the supports for the drawers had pulled out of their sockets. The entire back panel had pulled loose. It really wasn’t even clear that the piece as a whole was salvageable (not the kind of message you want to give a client).

Talk about another Puzzle from Hell!

Part of the challenge with a piece that has broken apart so badly involves first determining the extent of the damage, along with where all the parts are supposed to go. You then have to clean all the pieces, to make sure that no old glue remains.

Next, you have to decide on the best sequence for gluing everything back together; it can’t be done in just any order.

If any surface has been damaged, you have to look for a stain with which to match the color. There, the challenge is to make the repair look integral to the original piece. This is what I had to do with several of the drawers.

If you were doing museum-quality restoration rather than repair, you’d be doing a job like this with tools and materials typical of the actual period. This client was fine with my using modern tools and materials—she just wanted a working chest.

And eventually it did all come together. 


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